Friday, March 26, 2010

On Disbelieving Pastors

I said I was going to respond to this article.

For eight years out of seminary I served a Church of the Brethren congregation in northern Ohio. I still remember the Sunday after worship when a parishioner came up to me and told me that my recent sermons were "undermining the faith of our children." I don't remember what I was preaching on; but I distinctly remember the responses I was getting at the time.

Just out of seminary I spent the first half of my tenure at that church getting my pastoral legs under my feet. I spent the second half of my time there beginning to find my own faith. It was a messy process for me. Looking back on my time there it is not surprising to me that some people sitting in the pews must have been wondering why they were paying this pastor to raise question that might challenge their faith.

To be fair to me in many ways I was just tinkering around the edges, sharing a little bible scholarship about sources and sitz im leben and discrepencies in the Greek text of the NT, etc. My own biblical studies were being re-invigorated by the work of the Jesus Seminar, but I wasn't giving them full doses. And I wasn't sharing anything about my own deeper questions about Jesus and the reality of God.

To be fair to them they were a very traditional Brethren congregation. They were mostly pacifist and service oriented, the best of my tradition. They were also mostly union folks and liberal on economic issues, definitely a plus. But they held very traditional and moderately evangelical views on sin and salvation, the "purpose" of Jesus, and the authority of the Bible. And the issue of homosexuality was a "live" issue in that congregation but the subject was taboo. I didn't preach about it from the pulpit but I was talking about it a lot with individuals and families. From their perspective I am sure it felt like I was messing with their faith.

I began to realize during my last few years that I could not keep doing what I was doing. I couldn't say one thing from the pulpit - the safe thing, the traditional thing - and think something else. I couldn't not talk about some issues because it made some people uncomfortable. I couldn't lead the congregation in prayer to God when I wasn't sure there was anybody up there listening.

So I decided to resign. The fateful moment actually was brought about by a congregational vote to turn down an offer made by a local company to take a piece of the church's large property and build on it a child-care center paid for by that company who would also share the building with the church. It was in my view a huge no vote to mission and to the viability of the congregation. It was time for me to go.

At first I interviewed at several other churches. But in each case I realized that it wasn't going to work. They were asking me questions about biblical authority and the virgin birth and I wasn't going down that road again. So because of my wife's employment and education situation where we were in Ohio, I began to look for other work there.

When I got the call from a denominational representative to consider planting a church in the twin cities I initially said no. He said he was sending me the material anyway. So it came and I began to realize that this might be an opportunity for me to be a pastor and to be honest about my faith. If I started from the very beginning saying "this is what I believe" then those who came would know what they were getting into and those who stayed would stay because they appreciate this way of being a person of faith.

Seventeen years later I am still saying "this is what I believe" on Sunday mornings. Not "this is what the Bible says you should believe" or "this is what you must believe to be a Christian" or "this is what I believe" (but secretly I don't). I have found it to be a recipe for growing a thriving liberal Christian community where some non-Christians also find a spiritual home. I have also found it to be a recipe for sleeping well at night.

I sympathize with pastors who feel trapped because their own faith experience doesn't match the faith experience of the congregations they serve. I was there once. And I don't think there is one right response to being in this situation. Some pastors have the cross-cultural skills to make it work. They love the people they are with for who they are and have the vision and persistence to work at bringing people along little by little over time. (I realize this may sound patronizing and it is certainly true that growth happens in both ways. But I also make no apologies for saying that it is part of the pastor's job to "bring people along," i.e to grow; and bringing people along towards a more open and progressive vision is in my view a good thing.)

Other pastors don't have the temperament or the skill set. Or they simply have lost their faith. For them there is no sleeping well at night. I know some of them. For their own sake and for the sake of their congregations it would probably be better if they found a new career, or better yet started a new church where they could figure out their faith among like-minded people.

1 comment:

always_learning said...

I am so thankful that a man with such insight and liberality came to MN where I was lucky enough to hear him speak his beliefs. I share so many of his ideologies and questions about life (just not fly-fishing) and I thought I was alone.

As a young child my mother taught me the golden rule and several bible stories. Occassionally I attended sunday school. My grandmother was a Jew turned Christian, my father was an athiest, and my mother hated to ruin a family day by having to get up early on a sunday morning and that god was in and around all of us who were caretakers of the world. I was always confused about religion. I argued people about it and studied it and tried to come to some understanding that reconciled my knowledge of the blood thirsty god of supreme violence and discrimination, and the historical Jesus of the bible who forgave and accepted all people! As a teenager and young adult I attended a variety of denominations of Christian churches always to be frustrated by the whole process. Why would a church that believes in Jesus not accept somebody who is different. Homosexuality was not a topic back then but other things were. Jesus from the bible told us that the old god of violence was not what we should follow anymore. He taught a way of living and behaving that was concerned with how we treat fellow beings on this planet and any others we may come across.

Believing in Jesus' teachings in how to live I found my morals and way of living and believing. The connotation of a Christian to me was "a nice Person to all".

In adulthood I have been accused of not being a Christian to the point of believing it. I did not understand the "trinity", I did not act accepting and forgiving to others in order to be rewarded in the after life, I do it because I believe it is the right thing to do. I do not pray before or after meals. I did not attend a church. I did not believe in the inerrancy of the bible, the virgin birth, the resurection or the importantce of being saved. Almost all denominations of christian churches I encountered had most of these at their core. I found loud praying to go against the teachings of Jesus that said the lord already knows what we are thinking, do not brag with prayer.

So many of the traditional items associated with Christianity and church and religion were hypocritical in my mind. Then I happed upon an article in the Mpls. Star Tribune that described the OPen Circle Church. I finally found a pastor that has sense. I honestly felt blessed at that point and it gave me the will to keep up my standards and still call myself a Christian to those who believe I am a Pagan because I refused to accept tradition and yet they are never able to explain or justify their ideas of faith. Although I do not live in MN anymore I appreciate that I can still read blogs and get the church newsletter and know that I am not all alone.

and researching other world religions that I might feel joined to. I do not want to be alone. What I